Confidential

The Pensacola Attack: Al Qaeda in the US

The Pensacola attack

The Pensacola attack took place in an American military base in Pensacola, Florida, which took place in December 2019. Three US sailors were killed and eight injured.  The Saudi student opened fire inside a classroom at the Naval Air Station. The attack led to the expulsion of 21 Saudi military pupils. These had been studying at the base with the attacker. 

According to US authorities, the Saudi military trainee Mohammed Alshamrani killed three US sailors and wounded several others. He had communicated with operatives from the group as recently as the night before the shooting. The attackers planned the Pensacola attack carefully for years.

US investigators uncovered the Al-Qaeda connection after the FBI broke through the encryption protecting the Saudi attacker’s iPhones. These were able to use the information on the devices to carry out a recent counterterrorism operation in Yemen.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP; an off-shoot of al-Qaeda based in Yemen) had claimed responsibility for the Pensacola attack. Indeed he said he was in touch with the attacker. In 2020, the White House announced that an airstrike in Yemen killed Qassim al-Rimi, the leader. AQAP had released an audio message earlier that month with the voice of the Pensacola attack. In that audio, he said the group was behind the naval base shooting.

The Pensacola attack

During the Pensacola attack, according to the FBI, the gunman radicalised before arriving in Florida. There he took on a three-year aviation course the US navy hosts for allied foreign servicemen. His ties to the AQAP began as far back as 2015. The connection between the group and the attack marked a major development in the US fight against terrorism. Since 9/11, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully directed a deadly attack in the US.

Critiques to Apple

The American officials criticised Apple for refusing to help investigators break into the devices. FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the FBI received no help from Apple in bypassing the phones. He claimed that third-party technology firms were also unable to help investigators.

The fix that the FBI was able to develop for the attacker phone was not a fix for all the struggles with Apple´s system. Apple designed its phones in a way that only the user can unlock the contents. The FBI is concerned about the cases where the user is a terrorist, a violent criminal, a human trafficker, etc. 

Regarding the Pensacola Attack, FBI officials said Apple provided access to iCloud and other data from the shooter’s devices but that breaking the phones’ encryption was key to retrieving more of Alshamrani’s communications before the attack. Wray stated that Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and national security and is in my judgment unacceptable.

Author

Ana-Maria Baloi

Ana Maria Baloi is analyst at Grey Dynamics and a MA candidate at Brunel University London, where she studies Intelligence and Security. Her research is focused on China’s policy and strategy towards Africa. In the last years, Ana has participated at numerous NATO Youth summits and Model United Nations conferences, while working as an intern for the Romanian Senate.

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